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A Teacher's 'Wit' and Wisdom
Margaret Edson, Finding
Lessons in Her Sole Play


By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 27, 2000

 

The paradox about Margaret Edson, widely celebrated playwright, is that she is not really a playwright. Edson herself has been saying so ever since she became a celebrated playwright last season, when her drama, "Wit," written nearly nine years ago, finally took the theater world by storm.

"Wit," about a stern college professor's battle with cancer, is still running in New York, where it won an armload of awards, including the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for drama. A production opened in Los Angeles last month, with more to come across the country. HBO is planning a film version. And Judith Light is starring in the national touring company, which opens this week at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.

Yet despite all this, Edson, who teaches kindergarten at a public school in Atlanta, maintains that it is impossible for her to think of herself as a dramatist.

"I just wrote this one little play," she explains.

This, then, is a story about arguably the most famous kindergarten teacher in America.

On a cold winter night, Edson, 38, stands erect at the front of a conference room in a downtown Washington hotel, charming a few hundred members of the Association of American Colleges and Universities as she lectures on punctuation. The matching of speaker and topic seems sensible: In "Wit," a good deal of philosophy hangs on whether a key phrase in one of John Donne's Holy Sonnets should have a comma or a semicolon. In advertisements, on programs, even on the published play, the spelling of the title includes the semicolon: "W;t."

On Edson's cue, Rosalind Jones, one of her former professors at Smith College, reads from "Wit" with the playwright. Appropriately, Jones plays E.M. Ashford, a former professor of Vivian Bearing, the drama's main character. Edson plays Vivian, a cold, intimidating Donne scholar who has ovarian cancer. Between bouts of what is often brutal (and impersonal, given Vivian's brusque professional methods) medical treatment, Vivian's mind flashes back to scenes like the one Edson and Jones read.

"And death shall be no more, comma," argues Jones as Ashford to a younger Vivian. "Death thou shalt die."

When her role is done, Jones leaves the stage, but Edson keeps reading her own part; she doesn't want the scene to be interrupted by exit applause. This is a lecture, not a theater. What matters now is the lesson.

The next morning Edson, a Washington native, takes the stage of the arts center at Sidwell Friends, where she went to high school in the late 1970s. She talks about Derek Anson Jones, a close friend since their days at Sidwell.

Four days before this, Edson's triumphant return to her alma mater, Jones who directed the New York and touring versions of "Wit" died of complications from AIDS. Edson had planned to share the stage with him this morning. Unhappily, she can't, so she stands before the Sidwell crowd and remembers her times with Jones: the way he stole the show from her as Touchstone when she was playing Rosalind in "As You Like It" at Sidwell; the way he optimistically carried the script of the undiscovered "Wit" in his backpack for years as he was building his directing career in New York.

At the end of these sessions (and at the beginnings), Edson gets long, deeply appreciative ovations. Edson, oddly, stands stock still, impervious to the acclaim; she looks as if she's waiting for a bus. This is not what playwrights do. Playwrights bow or smile or wave or blush. Their instinct for dramatic action demands it.

Edson, on the other hand, merely waits like a teacher for the room to get quiet.

She'd Rather Teach

Margaret Edson wrote "this one little play" in Washington almost nine years ago. Nothing about her life up till then pointed to dramatic theatrical success.

She grew up across the street from American University; her father, who died in 1977, wrote for newspapers, and her mother continues her career as a social worker. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, later of "Saturday Night Live" and "Seinfeld," lived next door. The two girls would invent dramas with Barbie dolls or act out fantasies of being college girls.

She dabbled in drama at Sidwell, then went to Smith College, majoring in Renaissance history. Not finding herself particularly employable after graduating, she helped a friend move to Indiana, then settled outside Iowa City (where her sister lived) for a summer, selling hot dogs by day and working at night in a bar at the end of a dirt road. Then she went to Rome to live in a French convent for a year.

After Rome, she returned to Washington, landing a job in the cancer ward of a research hospital. Later she worked in publications at the St. Francis Center (now the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing), cranking out grant proposals.

In the summer of 1991, Edson quit her position at St. Francis and got a low-pressure job working in a bike shop near Tenley Circle. In effect, she was taking the summer off so she could write this one little play that had been taking shape in her mind, triggered in part by what she had seen of cancer treatment.

But she would allow herself only the summer to write. She was enrolled at Georgetown University for the fall, ready to pursue a master's in English. She wasn't setting out to become a writer.

"Oh, no," Edson says, horrified by the idea. "That would have been too dangerous for me."

Why does writing seem more dangerous than

"Than saying, 'Now I'm going to be a waitress?' I don't know. I haven't thought about it." She pauses. "Because if you're a waitress, you're doing something. You're getting up and getting dressed every day and you're part of the world. And if you're a writer, you're just not good for anything. You're not in the mix when you're a writer. It just wouldn't do for me to be a writer."

What she wrote, that one time that she wrote, was rejected from coast to coast. Finally, in January 1995, South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., produced "Wit." Edson says she was surprised at how unsurprising the experience was: "It happened exactly like it was in my mind, as though I was whispering to each person what to do. So instead of being astonished by it, it was . . . correct. That was the most exciting thing to have it be exactly as I imagined it, to the tiniest detail, and to have strangers bringing that about. It was so proper, so correct, that it was thrilling. I was delirious. And that hasn't gone away."

But she says the production, which won a number of Los Angeles Drama Critics Awards, did not make her think, "Aha, I'm a playwright."

"Because I was a teacher by then," she says. "By the time it was produced, I was in my fourth year. I was really into it."

While she was completing her master's at Georgetown, Edson had begun teaching English as a second language through her church, St. Margaret's Episcopal on Connecticut Avenue.

"I started liking my tutoring more and more," she recalls, "and feeling less and less comfortable in the academy. So at the end of that year, it was clear to me that I wanted to be in the elementary classroom."

She launches into a topic that genuinely excites her: the alternative certification plan started by the D.C. school system eight years ago. She was in the inaugural group of the program, which allows promising people from other professions to begin teaching without first wading through the certification process, which Edson says takes at least a year (full time) to complete. Instead, they start teaching right away, taking certification classes at the same time.

"In inner-city schools," Edson says, "there's about a 40 percent exit rate in the first three years for teachers. Alternative certification programs have a much higher retention rate because people go into it knowing more about it. They're not 21. We were older and sadder and wiser, and had had some kind of experience in the classroom. So I taught ESL for five years, and I never could have done it without this program. It was really the big break of my life."

Moving On

It was Jones, whose years of study and dues-paying were beginning to yield fruit in and around New York in the mid-1990s, who finally got "Wit" produced on the East Coast. Artistic Director Doug Hughes agreed to let Jones direct it at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., where it opened in October 1997. The play had been rejected for two years even after its success at South Coast Rep. Edson ticks off the reasons listed in her rejection letters: "cast size, subject, too much talk, too academic, too haughty, too unsure of itself, whether it was funny or sad. . . . Now people are scratching their heads about it. But it was unanimous."

The script was cut by an hour at South Coast by Edson (who hated the cuts at the time), dramaturge Jerry Patch and director Martin Benson. "The effect it has now, especially in Derek's production, is of this very fast-swerving drive," she says. "You're brought very quickly over to laughing and then ripped right back into something harrowing very shocking, in fact. And it happens so quickly and smoothly in his production that it makes me seem like I really know what I'm doing." She laughs.

There is a thick streak of redemption running through "Wit" (and made abundantly clear in its final image) as Vivian Bearing comes to terms with her tough personality, her illness, her isolation and the implications of Donne's poetry. Edson, a Christian, says it's fair to say that she has written a Christian though certainly not proselytizing play, yet it is seldom described that way.

"And that's very interesting to me. To me, it's obvious. Duh."

Edson has said repeatedly for she is invariably asked that she will not write again until she feels she has something else to say. "If 'Wit' works, it's 'cause it's the one thing that I had in my heart," she insists. "And I'm not going to go and try to crank that up again."

Of course, the pressure of writing a follow-up to "Wit" would be enough to intimidate even more experienced writers.

"I don't think that's what's keeping her from doing it," says Linda Merrill, Edson's longtime partner, by phone from Atlanta. (Merrill, who wrote a number of scholarly art books while at the Freer Gallery for 13 years, is now curator of American art at Atlanta's High Museum of Art.) "She is very wrapped up in her other life, which is her life as a kindergarten teacher. That occupies so much of her thinking and her energy that she doesn't have a lot left over for anything else. So the rest of this is something that's going on somewhere else."

Edson says, "The job I have now, 'people person' doesn't even begin to describe it. I'm with my students every minute of the day lunch, everything. So the isolated languor of the writer is just really not part of my world." She laughs again, and you can practically hear the relentlessly inquisitive voices of 5-year-olds buzzing in her ear.

Because she has achieved a degree of fame and fortune and possibly because of the scholarly tone of her play it confounds people that Edson continues to teach kindergarten. She got a hero's applause, for instance, from the university crowd when she was introduced as the toast of American theater and a public schoolteacher.

"It's a government job," she says later, rolling her eyes in a neat summation of the drab hassles implied by the phrase. "There's nothing heroic about it."

Still, teaching, given her circumstances, strikes people as a heroic choice.

Edson isn't buying it. "Ms. Rivers in the room next door has made the same choice," she says flatly. "Not out of the same number of options. But all my colleagues are doing the same thing I'm doing. People who know me slightly, or who have maybe read about me or heard about me, find it hard to understand. But to people who know me better, it makes perfect sense. They know the ways that I'm . . . odd."

"She loves to draw, for instance," says Merrill, who has known Edson for 20 years dating back to their days at Smith, "but she's not very good at it. They're funny little pictures, so they're just right for kindergartners. She's an excellent mimic in fact, she used to take mime classes and she can imitate animals in amazing ways. And that's a skill that you wouldn't think she'd have occasion to use.

"Writing is a lonely profession," Merrill adds, "and it was hard for her to write the play. She likes having the immediate response from her students. And if there's something about it that isn't working, she can change it immediately. Whereas writing a play is a long, drawn-out process, and it's a long time before you know whether you've been effective."

Add to that the fact that Edson a private school product appears to be one of public education's evangelicals. To be in a public school is "critical" for her, she says. "Completely. The school where I teach is a Title One, free lunch/free breakfast school. My students are people who would be . . . well-served by good education." Her voice is very soft now; she is deeply serious. "I feel very clear about what I'm doing. I'm perfectly sure of the positive impact of what I'm doing. And I'm the only person I know who can say that. Except for the people down the hall, Ms. Rivers next door."

Yet once upon a time she wrote a play, and it became a very big hit. . . .

Edson comes up with an allegory to explain it.

"A friend of ours, in his garden, decided to build a shed. He'd never built anything, and he just got this idea that he was going to build this shed. And so he got all these books and plans, and he poured a foundation. For somebody who'd never built anything to build such a shed was incredible. He worked for the government, came home from work, and worked on this shed. And this was his . . . shed. And I was working on my play. We had the same spirit: that whatever else happens, I'm makin' my shed.

"So now," Edson concludes, "he has his shed. And I have my play."

Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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